Curated by Biennale Director Francesco Bonami, 'Pittura/Painting? From Rauschenberg to Murakami, 1964-2003', at the Museo Correr, seems to be asking whether a coherent narrative of contemporary painting is possible or even useful. Although the exhibition is arranged chronologically, it succeeds, despite its limitations, because of its stanza-like structure. A stanza - the word derives from the Latin word for 'standing place' or 'room' - lends rhyme, rhythm and a sense of unity to a poem. Each room in 'Pittura/Painting?' offers half-rhymes, collisions, strange couplings and echoes, inviting the viewer to find unexpected links and continuities. If the rest of the Biennale is Bonami's blustering epic, this is his sonnet.
In the first gallery, after Takashi Murakami's video, an Andy Warhol self-portrait gazes coolly over a few legends: Lucio Fontana, Cy Twombly, Robert Ryman and Robert Rauschenberg, Bridget Riley and Daniel Buren, c. 1963-4. These artists, all roughly from the same generation, are mainstays of 20th-century art and form a solid foundation for the rest of the show. In the following room an unmistakable if mediocre Philip Guston dominates a space that includes a Richard Hamilton, an Alberto Burri, whose scorched and translucent surface rhymes with a Sigmar Polke a few rooms away, and a dull Domenico Gnoli - four paintings that derail suspicions that the show is a survey of masterpieces.
Next door, an Ed Ruscha word painting and a Gerhard Richter face each other across a wall in a narrow room, anchored by a Roy Lichtenstein Mirror (1970). Exhibiting Ruscha and Richter together would encourage chin-rubbing in any curator, but here it was perceptive - the context suggests that doubt, and a desire for order, infects both artists' practice, even if they react to it in strikingly different ways. Like the warp and weft of an Apollonian impulse, Richter works in a tragic mode and Ruscha in a comic one.
Green is a controlling hue in both of the included paintings by Richter and Ruscha, and the colour forms a link to a Frank Auerbach in the following space, the kind of light curatorial touch that gives the show internal energy. The Auerbach is hung on the left as one enters: the same positioning in other rooms as the Warhol (another green background) and Hamilton portraits. In fact, a portrait hangs in the same spot in most rooms, a recurring motif that invites the viewer to reflect on other rooms and other approaches to portraiture in the late 20th century. Auerbach's Julia (1978) - surrounded by an immense Photorealist portrait by Franz Gertsch of Patti Smith, two fairly dull portraits by Maria Lassnig and Jan Håfström (more green), a Sicilian market scene by Renato Guttuso and a poked and prodded canvas by Enrico Castellani - looks concentrated and deeply felt.
A Jean-Michel Basquiat skull grimaces over an anodyne selection from the early 1980s, including bombastic works by Julian Schnabel and Anselm Kiefer and a self-absorbed Francesco Clemente gouache. Only Martin Kippenberger's painting of an awkwardly entangled porno couple, painted in a lifeless grisaille, puncture the air of familiarity. In the next room two early paintings by Marlene Dumas in vibrant reds, oranges and pinks, are dynamically juxtaposed with a late painting by Francis Bacon.
Despite the presence of some other big names, Sigmar Polke and Agnes Martin dominate the next room. The Martin, a signature painting of horizontal bars in calm, meditative grey, recalls not only Riley and Ryman but also, surprisingly, Murakami. The Polke is an exuberant improvisation with resin and pigment that, for playfulness and splendour of mark-making, outdoes anything in the show.
Two duds dampen the mood next door. A Damien Hirst dot painting is a poorly made and stolid piece of decoration, and the insipid paint handling of Jenny Saville's Knead (1995) is equally off-putting. Lari Pittman occupies the same space relative to the Rauschenberg in the first room, and the subject matter (US imperialism) also connects the two images. But whereas the Rauschenberg is a genuine image of protest, Pittman's flatly painted bomb and inflamed, shitting bunghole reek of searing irony. Nearby, an icy and understated landscape by Peter Doig steals the room amid work by John Currin, Vija Celmins and Elizabeth Peyton.
The final two rooms showed representative work by Luc Tuymans, Gary Hume and Glenn Brown and a recent Chuck Close, along with a superb cadaver's picnic by Kai Althoff (strong echoes of Jörg Immendorf). However, Thomas Scheibitz' Kirschbaum (Cherry Tree, 2001) stands out. The composition echoes Polke, the colour palette Martin and the subject matter Doig - and yet it surpasses all three. The painting evokes German Romanticism, the Modernist grid and meditative abstraction. Beside Scheibitz, Brown's strained portrait in flattened, painstaking brushstrokes recalls Kippenberger and puts an ironic spin on Auerbach and Basquiat. Brown was an essential inclusion in a show that opens up an animated dialogue between depth in portraiture and flatness in abstraction, but Scheibitz' refusal to parody is a livelier response to the art of his peers and predecessors.
Murakami, the only artist from outside Europe or America on show at the Museo Correr, began and ended the show with two non-paintings. The first piece is a video for Louis Vuitton, and the second resembled a beautiful, Godzilla-sized furoshiki, the printed squares of fabric used to wrap gifts in Japan. But if Bonami's argument is that Murakami represents a fresh challenge to the art world, in the same way that Rauschenberg challenged the hegemony of Europe in 1964, it is a lame one. Bonami's show works best as an idiosyncratic look at contemporary painting that forgoes a linear argument in favour of a contextual one. Painting resembles a virus that mutates just when it might get pushed into extinction, and this persistence and diversity help to diffuse the hasten-the-next-apocalypse-into-the-institution tone of so much installation art. If you encounter a few paintings in a quiet room you have to take a stance, even if you revise it when you step into a new space.
First published in Issue 77